Fighting the ancient urge to kill a free fire



One time when I was about 12 my friends and I found a smouldering fire in the little woods behind our town's fire station. The conflagration was bigger than a campfire, and seemed to be consuming rags and rubber and scraps of metal, as well as motley scraps of wood. It also seemed to be spreading.

FireSo we pulled it apart, stomped it out, threw dirt over the embers, and cleared brush away from the site. Then, dusty and sooty and inordinately proud of ourselves, we trooped into the fire station to report our feat.

The fireman who met us listened carefully, and then he told us grimly that if ever we did such a thing again he would report us to the police.

You do not put out a large fire. You call the fire department. You come running and tell us about it and we will take care of it. That's what we are here for. You could have been badly hurt. You could have been killed. You could have made it much worse. Do not ever, under any circumstances, do that again, do you hear me? Am I making myself clear?

Yes, sir.

He was large and burly and moustachioed and very angry indeed, and while later I wondered if he was to some degree performing the role of furious firefighter, so as to imprint the lesson forcefully in our minds, I did not think then that he was performing.

I remember seeing the veins bulge in his neck and on his temples, something I had not seen before, being a rare and lucky boy who had not seen rage up close yet. I remember that he wore suspenders, and a firehouse shirt with the badge of the firehouse on it, and that his boots looked sturdy enough to withstand any cataclysm you could ever imagine.

We stood there sooty and disconsolate for a moment after he stomped off, and then my friends withdrew, deflated, and wandered home, detouring around the place where the fire had been, but I stayed in the shadows by the door for a moment, staring at the vaulting silent gleam of the firehouse.


"It's an ancient urge to kill a free fire. I think we are still scared of fires just as we were a million years ago. We are terrified of fires. We want to kill them when they break loose. We're fascinated and scared at the same time."



The two trucks were huge and looked like dozing mammoths. The array of tools and implements and equipment on the walls was epic. You could tell somehow that each piece of equipment was exactly where it should be and was arranged to be taken off the wall in an exact order. I could hear the voices of men upstairs on the second floor. Then a young firefighter came down the stairs and saw me standing there. I turned to go, still rattled from the first firefighter shouting at me, when the young man said quietly,

I heard what Steve said. He's right, you know. But you and your friends had the right idea. I think it's an ancient urge to kill a free fire. I think we are still scared of fires just as we were a million years ago. We are terrified of fires. We want to kill them when they break loose. We're fascinated by them and scared at the same time. You had the right idea. He's just saying let the professionals handle it. We're terrified too. We'd never admit it but we are. Every one of us has had nightmares. That's probably why we become firefighters, to confront the fear. Some psychological thing. Probably there have been firefighters for a million years. Probably some guys in every tribe volunteered for that.

Don't let Steve scare you. He just wants you to be safe, is all. He has kids, so all kids are his kids now, somehow. He's a real responsible guy. Next time call us, okay? And remember us the next time you hear the siren. You're a Catholic kid? Say a prayer when you hear the siren. It's never good news when you hear the siren. Alright?

I did say a prayer, for a while, after that, when I heard a siren, because I could instantly see that gentle young man clutching onto the fire engine, rushing right at awful; but then, in the way of things, I stopped saying a prayer. But even now, all these years later, when I hear a siren, I stop what I am doing, and put my hands together in the ancient gesture, and bow, and hope that awful will be ameliorated, and that the young firemen and firewomen on that truck will be safe, and bring their courage and epic equipment to bear against pain and terror; and every so often, more than you would think, I remember that smiling young man, and wish him well.


Brian Doyle headshotBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author of the essay collection Grace Notes.

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, fire



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""It's an ancient urge to kill a free fire."... 'A stitch in time saves nine'. We have inherited many ancient urges from our ancient animal ancestors. Some of them are useful, if they make us stop and think before plunging into dangerous reactions. Others can be harmful if they make us abandon a reasonable response. It is best if acknowledge them, but see them as warning signs, as suggestions to be considered, but then controlled by reason. 'Feelings are good servants, but bad masters'.

Robert Liddy | 12 September 2016  

Ah Brian, How is it that no matter what you write I tear up. You have a gift of touching the soul.

Patricia Taylor | 12 September 2016  

Brian,like Patricia confesses, you always elicit a response from me too. We choose to live in a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains. Daily ,I look out any of the windows and praise the creator for the majesty and beauty. One summer though ,to quote Henry Lawson the bush fire creeping down the mountain sides looked like a"lighted city in the range" sprawling ever closer to the valley. We evacuated the house that evening and were very relieved next morning to find the fire had changed direction and our house (and garden) had been saved. Since that time we have been reminded of the vagaries of nature, the fragility of our environment , our duty to be attentive to its needs and the debt we owe to firefighters and emergency service providers who protect us and our property. It is interesting in living life that the call to prayer can be defined by our many experiences. Next time the siren calls come, be they be for flood watch, fire alert or storm warning , I'll be reminded of your idea to give a little prayer and maybe an extra donation to our SES? . Thank you Brian for an early reminder of our responsibilities as we face another Summer after record winter spring rainfall and luxurious vegetation growth.

Celia | 12 September 2016  

" I remember that smiling young man, and wish him well." Could it have been the old good cop-bad cop trick devised on the second floor? Still, any subterfuge that incarnates a habit of responsive prayer can't be bad. Here's looking at you too, Steve.

Roy Chen Yee | 13 September 2016  

Ah I am honored at these notes. The whole point of writing, it seems to me, is to connect in some way, either lighthearted or deep; and stories seem like the deepest connections of all --

Brian Doyle | 14 September 2016  

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